Sunday Anchor

No place for strangers

“India is a country of peace-loving and law-abiding citizens. It is a safe destination for domestic and international tourists. However, like in any other civil society, there are aberrations, and a few persons break the law now and then. The instances of sexual molestation/harassment of foreign tourists that have happened in recent weeks are such aberrations.”

So says an advisory the government put on its “Incredible India” website last year in an attempt to convince women tourists that the country remains a safe destination.

While India amended the Indian Penal Code in 2013 to make punishment for crimes against women more stringent, the alleged rape of a 20-year-old Japanese tourist last week in Jaipur reopened the question whether sexual violence against foreign tourists is merely “an aberration” or part of an unsettling trend.

Vicki Parris, an Australian citizen, who recently moved to India as National Brand Leader for the travel operator Flight Shop said, “Women’s safety will always be a major consideration when choosing a holiday destination. The very essence of a holiday is built around exploration and relaxation. If personal safety becomes a concern, it mars the possibility of a stress-free experience. There has been some effect on tourism, particularly among single women travellers.”

Acknowledging that the government is conscious of the issue and that India has built adequate regulations, experts rue poor implementation. “India is adequately regulated and has the essential checks and balances in place. Clearly, it is a case of lax implementation on the ground, whenever such incidents occur,” Nikhil Ganju, country manager, Trip Advisor India, said.

Sharat Dhall, president at Yatra.com, agreed. “While there are rules in place, enforcement is lacking. There is also a need to generate awareness so that people know something tangible is being done.” Women’s safety tops the to-do list of the Tourism Ministry. It admitted that foreign tour operators and prospective visitors to India have concerns over safety following reports of such incidents.

Therefore, on a pilot basis, the Ministry set up the “Incredible India Help Line” to address and guide tourists during any emergency, including those criminal in nature. Plagued with the negative publicity, a campaign was unveiled wherein people involved in the tourism sector were encouraged to wear badges with the slogan “I respect women”. However, nothing much was heard of the campaign later. To sensitise people directly or indirectly involved in the tourism industry, the government ran a social awareness campaign on television and evolved the Code of Conduct for Safe and Honourable Tourism.

For stricter security, the Centre has advised the State governments to deploy “tourist police” at prominent tourist spots. Following which, according to an official note, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha have deployed tourist police, “in one form or the other.”

“There have been heightened concerns around the issue post the 2012 Delhi gang rape. While there was an impact on the number of women travellers in the country, now it is pretty much back to normal. But the issue still exists,” Mr. Dhall said.

The two areas which need improvement are policing and faster delivery of justice. “While police need to be far more effective in making streets safe, faster justice will send out a message that such cases are not taken lightly.”

The absence of proper implementation of regulations is evident at most tourist spots where fake guides and touts continue to flourish. Though the government has a certification programme for tourist guides, it is touts and uncertified guides, mostly local thugs, who dominate the business.

Mariellen Ward, a Canadian citizen who runs the travel blog Breathedreamgo, has been on several trips to India since 2004. Asked if she has seen any change in India towards the issue, she said, “The big change in India is how openly everyone is now talking about women’s safety and the treatment of women.”

“Everything has changed since December 16, 2012. I don’t know if things are actually better or worse in India for women with regard to safety. They seem worse, but I wonder if it’s because everything is getting reported now … It has had the unfortunate consequence of painting India in a very bad light internationally, and possibly overstating the potential dangers of travel here,” she said.

However, she does state that in India, there are extra precautions she takes that she would not have bothered about in her home country. For instance, “I am careful about how I relate to men in India, especially men who are perhaps less educated and working in service trades, auto drivers, waiters, etc. Also, I dress more modestly.”

If a beginning is to be made on turning things around, it will have to start with a change in attitude towards women, better education, and more opportunities for women. Also, educating and training the hospitality workers, and auto drivers and railway porters could inspire more confidence in tourists.

Additionally, providing more and better information to tourists, especially online and having help desks at airports and railway stations, are some of the other suggestions. But, according to Mr. Ganju, it would take India much more time and effort to shed the “unsafe for women” tag.

However, cities in the southern States have a better reputation as being safe for women. In Chennai, while foreign tourists discussion groups online give advice on watching out for water and street food, the appropriate reaction to those seeking alms on the street, and touts in tourist spots, people on these fora do not seem overly concerned about safety issues.

Also, after the Delhi cab rape case, tourist cab services have offered “tracking” and “call-the-police” options on their mobile apps. Some cabs in Chennai have installed a safety button, which can be used to alert the nearest police station in case of an emergency.

In Kerala, tourist destinations are virtual enclaves, where the tourists from far and wide can hope for some amount of protection from peering eyes and irritating intrusions into their privacy.

(With additional reporting by Ramya Kannan in Chennai and S. Anil Radhakrishnan in Thiruvananthapuram)


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